Last night, you went to the gym, broke a good sweat and set some personal bests.
This morning, you can hardly move.
It’s a problem, and while you can’t completely eliminate soreness after a hard workout, there are ways to lessen the pain.
“Exercise is a stress on the body. And it’s only a positive stress if you give it the tools it needs to recover,” said fitness expert and author Kathleen Trotter. Here are some of those tools.
Before your workout
Before you hit the gym or go out for your run, you need to make sure you’re properly fuelled, according to registered dietician Alison Friesen. “If you go into a workout without any food, you’re not going to get any benefits from it.”
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She recommends having a small snack that includes carbohydrates and a little bit of protein. The carbs can come from grains, fruits, vegetables, milk products or beans, she said. Although she says some people advise against consuming carbohydrates, without them, your body could end up using some muscle mass for fuel — which is likely the opposite of what you want.
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Trotter stresses the importance of warming up, to get your mind and body ready for exercise and to help prevent injury. Your warmup depends on what you plan to do.
For a cardio workout, like a run, Trotter suggests that you walk or lightly jog for at least eight minutes and gradually build up to full intensity. If you were planning to ride an elliptical, do that lightly at first before going full speed.
If your workout is more strength-focused, like weightlifting, she suggests a few minutes of cardio to get your blood pumping, then doing some dynamic stretching focused on the body parts that you plan to use — like rolling your shoulders if you’re going to do shoulder-focused lifts.
She also suggests that you “mark” your exercises by doing lesser versions of them. So if you’re planning to squat 100 lbs, you should do a few squats without any weight to get used to the motion.
“It primes your body and your brain for the motion that’s going to come,” she said.
During your workout
Both Trotter and Friesen say it’s important to stay hydrated. The best way to do that: water.
“A really easy test is the colour of your urine,” Trotter said. You want it to be clear or light yellow, not dark. This goes for all times of the day, not just your workout.
If you’re exercising at a very high intensity for more than 60 minutes, Friesen said, you may want to have a small bit of pure carbohydrate — like a sports drink, pretzel or fruit. But, “very few people actually do that if they’re just going to the gym,” so unless you’re a high-performance athlete or very serious runner, it’s unlikely you will need that boost.
Immediately after your workout
You should cool down after your workout, Trotter said, again by doing a lighter version of what you were doing. If you were running, go more slowly, and then walk before you stop entirely.
Then, you should do some static stretches to stretch out your muscles and work on flexibility. Trotter also recommends doing some self-massage with a foam roller or small yoga tune-up ball. “If something is tight or overused in the workout, then you’re stretching it out. It feels good.”
Friesen says that within about 15-30 minutes of your workout, you should have a small “recovery snack.” This should include carbs to replenish your energy and protein to help your muscles recover. She personally often drinks chocolate milk after working out.
“You have an hour anabolic window for recovery to get kickstarted because your body is depleted of all its energy, so you really need to get in that energy right away,” she said.
Although some people might choose a protein powder or other supplement for the convenience, she says it’s unnecessary. “You can easily meet your recovery needs with food.”
You should have a meal with more protein within about two or three hours, Friesen said, and eat regularly throughout the day.
Trotter also says that getting plenty of rest is important. “Sleep is really important for everything. It’s where your body and your brain recover. So if you’re doing intense workouts and you’re not sleeping, your body doesn’t have a chance to recover.”
The next day
Just because you’re stiff and sore doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep moving the next morning, Trotter said – just the opposite. “That’s the reason why you need to move!”
“So on a day that you come in to work and you’re stiff, prioritize getting up, getting your steps that day, set an alarm to go off once an hour to do some stretches, go for a walk with a colleague. Take the long way to the bathroom. Anything that you can do to get your body moving in a light way is going to promote the healing process, promote blood flow.”
You’re probably still going to hurt a bit, though. “You may not feel 100 per cent. If you worked really hard and your muscles are sore, that’s going to happen. But if you can do what you can with nutrition, then you’re going to make recovery a lot better,” Friesen said.
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